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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Trinity - a necessary cognitive barrier?


Not that long ago I was in a church assembly where folk were invited to share their faith: where some had spoken of Jesus, one spoke of the Trinity and, most daringly, of perichoresis (a Trinitarian buzz word that summarises the way Father, Son and Holy Spirit live and relate, one to each other, separate persons but ever one God.)  My heart sank – he was absolutely right, theologically and spiritually spot on – but this assembly, theologically informed though it was, you could feel it drift away at the mention of perichoresis

Now that is my sense of what happened.   Maybe I am wrong or unfair to suspect that the heart of the meeting was not with the Trinity; that it wanted a more accessible faith; that it wanted a strong and tidy concept it could nail to the wall.  'Jesus' sounded familiar; sounded biblical; sounded evangelical.  We know Jesus was human; we can identify with Jesus.  Jesus just feels more accessible than the Trinity.

Yesterday during a pastoral visit a parishioner said to me something like, “I don’t envy your job, how can we speak of God any longer?”   That has always been a problem.   We have never had the language to speak of God.  Our best thinkers have always known that God cannot be contained in the net of language; God is not an object to be accounted for; the word ‘God’ is, at best, a metaphor – drawing us beyond ourselves and our frames of reference.  

And yet the task of theology, the business of faith, is to make sense as best we can of the God we encounter in our lives; in scripture and in the life of the church: that is where the doctrine of the Trinity has its source – it confronts our experience of God and the impossibility of our experience. 

The mystics have always understood the problem, for example a superb illustration from the classic The Cloud of Unknowing:

‘Now you say, "How shall I proceed to think of God as he is in himself?" To this I can only reply, "I do not know."
With this question you bring me into the very darkness and cloud of unknowing that I want you to enter. A man may know completely and ponder thoroughly every created thing and its works, yes, and God’s works, too, but not God himself. Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him. By love he may be touched and embraced, never by thought. Of course, we do well at times to ponder God’s majesty or kindness for the insight these meditations may bring. But in the real contemplative work you must set all this aside and cover it over with a cloud of forgetting. Then let your loving desire, gracious and devout, step bravely and joyfully beyond it and reach out to pierce the darkness above.”’

Celtic Knot as Trinitarian symbol
The writer of The Cloud reminds us of the limitations of thought – and nudges us beyond thought and towards silence; ‘to reach out to pierce the darkness.’

The doctrine of the Trinity trains us beyond thought: it is a mystery; a cognitive barrier that resists all our attempts to understand, simplify, domesticate or explain God.  The Trinity takes us beyond all that we think we know – it is so contrary to the way we understand the world.

In the wisdom of the church, we embrace the Trinity as the utter mystery of God, defying all our logic.  We are taught to use the Trinity as the proper formulary for our prayers: as a liturgical church we pray to God the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.  To learn to pray and think in this way opens us to think of God and all creation in terms of a deeply rooted relationality: a perichoresis of continuous movement, a perpetually open system, and to be at home with a sense of God encompassing both transcendence and immanence.

One observant commentator highlighted the effect of being formed in a Trinitarian faith.


“Once trained in the Trinity, it's not a great leap to consider the God of multiple dimensions, multi-universes, string theory, and hyperspace. Opening to new perceptions of God's self-revelation is as natural as contemplating innovations in theoretical physics. As I learn and grow I can open to God's Reality more fully if ever increasingly more humbly. Awe deepens.”

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